If you want to make your dog as happy and healthy as possible, one crucial thing to consider is their sense of agency. Agency means the ability to make choices, control their surroundings, and feel like they’re in charge.
We understand that agency is important to people, but have we extended this concept to animals? There is overwhelming evidence that animals resist and rebel against human tyranny. Sheep escape from the slaughterhouse, pigs jump off transports, and cows prefer to swim into the open sea rather than endure heart-wrenching conditions aboard ship. Animals resist by screaming, running, and defending themselves with horns, teeth, and claws; they express disapproval through eye contact, stiffness, repetitive behaviour, depressive ear drooping and reticence, or simply by retreat 1,2. In their given environment, animals express many “forms of resistance against human ordering”3.
This extends to our pets. Right now, many pet dogs face a lack of agency, and it can affect both their physical and mental well-being. The good news is that there are simple ways to boost your dog’s agency, and it’s only limited by your imagination.
Loss of Control for Dogs
Dogs often don’t get to choose their homes, families, or even their friends. They can’t decide when to eat, where to go to the bathroom, or when to have puppies. Throughout the day, they might also face greater losses of control, like being chained or confined in small spaces, or trained to suppress natural behaviours.
Why Control Matters
Just like humans, having a sense of control is crucial for a dog’s well-being. Research shows that animals, including dogs, feel better when they have control over their lives. When faced with something unpleasant, being able to move away or reduce the intensity makes the experience more bearable. As veterinarian Frank McMillan4 states in “The Mental Health and Well-being Benefits of Personal Control in Animals,” studies on both people and animals show that feeling in control of your life, especially when dealing with unpleasant things, is linked to positive emotions and mental well-being. When confronted with something unpleasant, having the sense that you can control or lessen its impact makes the experience easier to handle. The perception of being in control—of being able to move away from or reduce the intensity or duration of an aversive event—makes the experience more tolerable. On the other hand, feeling powerless increases stress in response to negative situations.
The act of making choices and having control plays a big role in boosting mental well-being. It’s possible that the choices animals make are significant to them. There are situations where dogs could make better choices than people. For instance, when walking a dog on a leash, if the dog clearly signals a desire to avoid a close interaction with another dog, it’s crucial to respect that choice. Ignoring the dog’s preference, and pulling them forcefully towards the other dog, can lead to a very uncomfortable situation, causing fear, anxiety, and even injury.
Agency Within Reason
Having agency doesn’t imply that your pet can freely engage in any behaviour with zero boundaries. For example, if a dog tends to play bite strangers, it’s crucial to manage their actions to prevent such incidents. Prioritizing safety and the public’s well-being over unrestricted choices is essential. A dog without a reliable recall (coming when called) shouldn’t be allowed off-leash in places where they can get lost, or potentially be in danger – even though off-leash freedom provides more agency. In such cases, it’s important to recognize this limitation and focus on training that will empower them to make choices in similar scenarios down the line.
Empowering Your Dog
Lack of control can be unpleasant, even psychologically harmful. A dog with greater agency is a happier dog. Moreover, through the process of choice-making, dogs have opportunities to learn and develop.
Giving your dog control is not only good for them directly but also indirectly helps shift the way we think about our relationship with them. Respecting their choices acknowledges their value and balances the power dynamic between humans and animals.
Simple Ways to Enhance Dog Agency
Fortunately, despite the limitations of how we typically care for dogs, there are numerous chances to improve their sense of control. The initial step involves being more aware of how their choices and control are restricted. The next step is to actively generate or welcome opportunities for them to make choices. Here are some concrete ways to create room for their agency. All of these methods necessitate actively listening to our dogs and closely observing their body language, facial expressions, and vocal cues.
- Let Your Dog Lead: Allow your dog to choose the direction, pace, and length of walks. If they want to stop and sniff, let them.
- Manage Social Interactions: Protect your dog from unwanted interactions with other dogs or humans. Let them decide when, how closely, and with whom they interact.
- Respect Consent: Ensure your dog consents to physical contact. Unwanted touching can make them feel like they’ve lost control.
- Training by Invitation: Make training sessions invitation-only. Your dog should have the right to decline politely.
- Listen to “No”: Accept “no” as an answer from your dog, unless their safety is at risk.
- Respond to Inquiries: Be open to your dog’s requests. Can I have a taste of your lunch? Can we play?
- Provide Space at Home: Give your dog access to as much space as possible within your home. Being locked in a crate can reduce their sense of control.
By incorporating these simple practices, you can enhance your dog’s agency and contribute to their overall happiness and well-being.
- Philo, C. 1998. Animals, geography, and the city: Notes on inclusion and exclusions. In Animal geographies: Place, politics, and identity in the nature-culture borderlands, ed. J. Wolch and J. Emel, 51–71. London, UK: Verso.
- Wadiwel, D. 2018. Chicken harvesting machine: Animal labour, resistance and the time of production. South Atlantic Quarterly 117 (3): 525–548.
- Wilbert, C. 2000. Anti-this—anti-that: Resistance along a human-nonhuman axis. In Entanglements of power: Geographies of domination/resistance, ed. J. Sharp, P. Routledge, C. Philo, and R. Paddison, 238–255. London: Routledge.
- Frank McMillan, “The Mental Health and Well-being Benefits of Personal Control in Animals,” in Mental Health and Well-being in Animals (2nd ed), edited by Frank D. McMillan. Wallingford, Oxfordshire: CABI, 2019, p. 67.